Walter Tevis’ The Queen’s Gambit was given a new life in late October as a miniseries on Netflix. Since then, it has gained the title of Netflix’s most-watched scripted miniseries and incited the 215% increase in sales of chess-related items. The story follows the life of Beth Harmon, and her journey to defeating the Russian Grandmaster, Vasily Borgov. With a traumatic past, Beth finds a way to cope, through her obsession with chess and substance abuse. The latter, as expected, has raised a debate surrounding how the series depicts addiction and the journey to sobriety. So, what’s the verdict?
Addiction within the plot
After losing her mother in a fatal car crash, Beth arrives at the Methuen home for orphaned children. Here, she is given the first gateway to forgetting her sorrow – tranquilizers.
Her days in the orphanage are dull, except for Jolene, an older girl that befriends Beth, and the chessboard she saw the janitor play. As she is introduced to the game, her nights pass by with Beth envisioning the board on the ceiling of the crowded dormitory with the help of the green tranquilizers. The chessboard replaces her nightmares and offers a secure universe of 64 black-and-white squares. From then on, she finds the inner drive that keeps her alive.
Beth’s addiction is halted by a law that forbids treating orphans with tranquilizers, but it’s too late for our protagonist. A failed plan to steal the medicine leads to a forced closure of the world of chess for Beth, so soon after she found her aptitude in the game.
The same chess pieces, on a different ceiling.
In the next years of abstinence, Beth is adopted and tries to fit in a new universe. As fate would have it, Ms. Wheatley, her adoptive mother, is prescribed the same green medicine that we’ve seen at Methuen. The addiction picks up from where it left off, as well as her professional chess career. The same chess pieces, on a different ceiling.
Characters: the other roles of addiction
Alma plays a crucial role in the depiction of substance abuse. As a lonely woman in a loveless marriage, she spends her time drinking away her issues, which inevitably leads to her untimely passing due to hepatitis. Alma’s alcoholism shows a dark and truthful side to addiction, although, due to the nature of secondary characters, this is explored rather superficially.
Harry Beltik & Benny Watts
Beltik and Watts play a crucial role in Beth’s sobriety. Watts emphasizes the need to have a sound mind to be a chess player, while Beltik reaches out to Harmon on multiple occasions to alert her of the consequences of substance abuse. The two play the vocal reminders of the dangers of substance abuse, and how, unlike what Beth believes, the alcohol and pills are not the cause of her achievements.
One of the final wake-up calls in Beth’s journey to sobriety is Jolene. After her bender, Jolene approaches Beth and calls her out on the reality of the situation. Beth finally admits that to get her life on track, she needs to keep playing chess and drop the substance use.
Shades of green
The show’s color, green, encompasses contrasting ideas, as green has connotations of life, hope, and harmony, as well as ambition and greed. This parallels the role of the pills in Beth’s life. At first, they help her further her skills, allowing her to play chess in her mind. Simultaneously, the pills become an addiction eventually standing in the way of the clear mind Beth needs to play.
Echos of the green pill are evident in Beth’s fashion. A first example is the dress young Beth wears during her mother’s tragic passing, a traumatic life-changing event for the young protagonist, and the potential cause for her search for coping mechanisms.
The second significant use of this color is the flowy dress Beth wears as she rushes to her Paris match with Borgov, dealing with the aftermath of a night of drinking. Despite using pills, Beth still loses her game. Her addictions are an obstacle to her chess progression.
Finally, the dress Harmon wears during the end game. Here, Beth is sober and yet, she visualizes the chessboard just like when she wasn’t. Harmon has found a way to pursue her ambition without other substances. The dress’ colors, being a nod to young Beth’s first dress, reflect her ability to overcome her challenges through her talent and resilience.
From a young age, Beth is a victim of the reportedly real practice of “treating” orphans with strong sedatives. Beth feels the need to have a cloudy mind to win, and throughout the majority of the show, she is shown as a high-functioning addict. The problem with Beth’s journey with addiction can be summarized as 2 main points:
1. Genius and addiction
Remember, don’t deny yourself help just so you ‘don’t lose your spark’.
For one, there is the implication that one can be a genius only if they are not sane or well-adjusted. Beth struggles with this mentality constantly, as she feels her genius relies on pills and alcohol. This sends a problematic message to any viewer struggling with addiction and mental illness. Remember, don’t deny yourself help just so you ‘don’t lose your spark’. Your craft and your talents can only be improved with the proper care and treatment for your addiction or mental disorders.
On the other hand, the average moviegoer feels more at ease with their mediocrity when they see that a genius on the screen is plagued by addiction or mental illness. This is, in many ways, a cop-out on the behalf of the producers. Beth is made to be an extraordinary chess player whose one flaw is her addiction; without this, she’s a debatably plain character. Instead, the filmmakers could have gone the route of self-doubt as an obstacle, following the book.
2. The easy fix
Beth’s journey includes periods of sobriety and substance abuse. Although she expresses at times how all she wants to do is have a drink or take the pills, when asked to quit, she simply does. There are no clear signs of any form of withdrawal or true struggle with her new sobriety, which is rather a simplification and misrepresentation of the unfortunate reality. However, it seems counterintuitive that as Beth’s addiction progresses her symptoms of withdrawal would become weaker.
The verdict: All pawns, no hope?
The show has thrived and brought to the table a deeper look into a competitive world that is rarely portrayed in the media. Despite the show’s engaging story, attention to symbolism, and beautiful cinematography, it’s important to acknowledge its flaws.
The criticism of the depiction of such a complex and central aspect of the show, substance abuse, is understandable and valid. Though the show explores this issue in various ways, it does a poor job at thoroughly demonstrating the complexities of the abuse and the journey to sobriety. Not a fatal flaw, but certainly a blunder.